‘Okay, back to writing I go. I can’t get this dialogue to sound realistic–Suddenly I am scrolling through an endless stream of tweets. How did this happen? How long have I been procrastinating? I really should get back to writing. Okay, so this character is feelin–Oh! A notification. I must see what this new email is. It could be important. I’ll just flip over to my email for a few secon–’
Does any of the above sound familiar? Procrastination is the bane of the modern writer’s life and it’s only getting worse.
Why is it so tempting to procrastinate?
Writers in the days of typewriters and quills had it easy. Well, they certainly had less distractions than us to contend with. Computers are, paradoxically, both the best and worst thing to happen to the world of writing. Typing out your story is so much more convenient than doing it by hand, but a world of distractions is, literally, a click away. In fact, they’re already on your screen vying for your attention. Little messages pop up and say ‘Hey! Come look at this!’ and insistent notifications flash at you, tempting you away from the word processor with a promise of something less taxing.
There are reasons we always fall back to scrolling through social media feeds or browsing random websites: Writing is hard and, I hate to break it to you, your brain is lazy.
Don’t worry, it’s also not entirely your fault. Without getting too deep into science, you are hard-wired to want more of the internet. Dopamine is the chemical that helps control the pleasure and reward areas of your brain. It is also extremely addictive and getting bite-size hits of easy information (Twitter, anyone?) is one way to feed the insatiable beast, along with other fun things like sex and drugs.
So how can we avoid these temptations? Answer: Remove the temptations.
Eliminate distractions for focused writing
The best way to win in the battle between writing and distraction is to eliminate the opposition - the things that make it easy for your mind to wander.
That means turning off the wi-fi, disabling all notifications and keeping the phone out of arm’s length. Unless you’re a brain surgeon on call, no email is so urgent that it can’t wait a few hours while you write.
On average, it takes 23 minutes to get into the zone and be completely focused on a task after an interruption. Every notification you receive and every browser tab sets you back to the beginning. In reality, most people never write in their most productive and focused mode. Think what you could achieve if every writing session was spent in this mode.
Set aside time purely for writing
Quiet, distraction-free time that has been scheduled exclusively for writing is the best time imaginable. However, most writers don't have the luxury of a peaceful retreat in the countryside to spend hours penning a masterpiece. Most writers are juggling a day job and a noisy family, and are squeezing writing in wherever humanly possible. I know this because I am exactly the same. But if you can set aside some time purely for writing then that’s half the battle.
Personally, I like to set my alarm an hour or two earlier than everyone else and get in the zone. Well, I say ‘like’ but getting up when it’s still dark is never easy. Still, a carefully allotted hour is 100% better than a day full of dipping in and out of writing. In fact, I am writing this very article at 6.10am in a silent house. You may find an hour before bed the optimal time. Or you could spend your lunch break in a quiet cafe writing. Hunt that quiet time down and cherish it with your life.
Segment your writing stages
Access to research is one of the huge benefits of the internet. You can write about any era in history, any location on the planet (and beyond) or any occupation a human can do, and a wealth of information is right at your fingertips. However, research can be a rabbit hole and it’s easy to get lost when you should be writing. One minute you want to quickly jump onto Google to find out what people in the 17th century ate for breakfast, and an hour later you’re reading about the 10 Most Fearsome Pirates of All Time!
If you need to look something up for your story, make a note and do it later. Try and separate your writing and research stages. Stay in the zone and avoid the temptation of drifting towards the search engine. Keep writing and fill in the facts later.
Editing is another stage that should definitely be kept separate from writing. Fine-tuning one sentence is an easy way to avoid finishing the rest of the chapter.
So, stop whatever you are doing and get back to it. Right now? Write now. Everything else can wait.